This blog looks at how to direct and control your web application, be it a website or Intranet. What is often forgotten is that information architecture is fundamental to what a web application is and does: it defines its scope. A good information architecture meets both business and user objectives by means of a user experience strategy.
Previously, I gave a general introduction to information architecture and I referred to a supermarket website and how you might group things together and label them in a way that users understand. This is generally a good idea, as long as it’s aligned with business objectives: we have to be realistic here. Sometimes it’s for the public’s own good because, as i guessed in my last blog, some people (65% according to this BBC article – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-23367268) will just think of meat as meat, cooked or uncooked, and be happy to put them together in a bag and probably on a user-defined supermarket shelf – something of a hygiene factor! And, as I also said previously, customers (especially parents) would be unlikely to group sweets next to the checkout in a physical supermarket architecture!
So, what is all this about? Governance. Like it or not, things need a bit of control but where that control comes from and how it is managed is the subtle part. It’s an issue both for websites and intranets. Websites are at risk of being driven by the whims of the Sales & Marketing seniors or, even worse, by the whims of an agency they hire. Engaging users in card sorting exercises helps to design a structure that makes sense. Similarly you can validate a site structure – or changes/additions to that structure – with a tree test. Tree tests are great because it allows the users to truly test the fundamental information structure without being cluttered by the design or layout of your actual site. This all seems tremendously democratic. What about those 65% who get things wrong? Well, the reality is that sometimes the users do get it wrong so in reality you shouldn’t be too literal about all parts of user research such as card sorting and like it or not some stakeholder (steak-holder?) or other will want to find some way of putting certain things in users faces – in a language they may wish to choose. A compromise is made but objectives for both parties are met as far as possible.
When it comes to intranets then having a good information architecture in place is critical as it provides a validated reason for the structure of the site. In governance terms it also provides you with good reason not to change it willy-nilly. One of the greatest problems is that everyone wants a piece of it – “oh could you just add a tab for my product/team on the home page” or whatever. Sites that give in to those kind of requests become a mess and then become another project, until it becomes a mess again. In other words, information architecture governance helps you manage change control to ensure that you don’t lose and confuse your users by constantly shifting things around and letting the structure go at the seams. No one will thank you for letting it go, except the people you bring in to sort it out.
So in summary, a good user experience strategy means good information architecture which in turn means good governance. In reality, this is the happy compromise between the objectives of the business (that wishes to sell or say things) and those of the users (who wish to find things as easily as possible). It is critical in not only getting a website or intranet right – but in keeping it right through the process of change control.
I recently tried to explain information architecture (IA) to my 13-year old daughter. We’re trying to get our house extended just now so we bore the kids a lot with talk about architecture – so I thought I’d bore my daughter some more. I’m not sure how well I explained it but I think she got it. I explained that IA is about organising information in the best way, mainly so people can find things – like on websites. I then talked about a specific example, a supermarket website. I said that when you go to a supermarket website you want to find things easily – by looking in the right categories or searching. To design this right, you could ask customers to group various items like tinned tuna, bananas, apples, cooked chicken, raw chicken, etc and ask them to label them. You can be pretty sure that bananas and apples would be grouped together in Fruit or Fruit & Vegetables but some people might put all meat together and others would separate cooked meat – for hygiene. In user experience terms, this activity is called a card sort as this is traditionally done by writing items on cards and getting people to sort them into groups and then provide names for those groups. There are plenty of online tools to do this now. This gets the site designed in the minds of the user. It’s not perfect but it helps you structure information in the most optimal way. I think that’s about as far as I got before we entered Waitrose to get some food. We didn’t think on it any further. Waitrose is a nice customer experience and we’d been shopping there for 10 years (and, however good their website is, I’d sooner pick my own fruit and veg thanks!)
What’s interesting about this example is that with shops you have a hybrid real-information architecture as shops have to decide how to group products in their stores and how to label them. What’s also interesting is that this physical layout has been dictated to users (ok, shoppers) but they’re so used to it that if you asked them to come up with the categories that they’ve got used to over the years then they would probably replicate their local supermarket (though I don’t think parents would opt to split the sweets and confectionery area and put some of it by the checkouts.) Does it matter who’s idea it was in the first place? Absolutely not. What’s easiest for people is what counts and what’s easiest is what’s familiar. Convention rules again. What’s nice about information architecture is that because it isn’t physical then things can be described in more than one way – so salami might sit in the Delicatessen category and raw chicken thighs in Uncooked Meat but both could also be tagged as Meat.
The web already has quite a standardised information architecture that has established over time. You know this because when you go to a website you’ll almost be guaranteed to find About Us or the increasingly fashionable Who We Are. If you’re looking for directions or a phone number then you’ll go to Contact Us or similar. There’s little point changing these conventions unless you have a very good reason – some companies don’t make Contact Us very obvious as perhaps they don’t want to meet the cost of being contacted! IA is also relevant at the page level by having key information displayed in priority or relevant places (top and left), having clear information hierarchy (eg text size and image placement to draw the eye): conventions we know from centuries of publishing.
So, information architecture is critical for websites to be successful: it’s a lot more than just visual and functional design. IA is also important for information systems and business applications although its use is more mature on the web because companies have to compete. There’s rarely any competition inside an organisation so only the largest or highly information-based organisations have really grasped IA in a big way. This is of course rapidly changing as people’s awareness of standards is changing: users won’t stand for a poor user experience any more. It also becomes more important in an era of record-keeping and compliance.
Net time we’ll get into more detail about how information architecture works, how it should link to business objectives and how it can be used for information governance and settling arguments!